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An attempt to understand Europe and France

Hussein Shobokshi

Published: Updated:

The fear of the unknown is the greatest motivator for individuals and societies to change. This sentence is perhaps the most accurate description of Europe’s current state, as it feels a great and growing danger of losing its “identity,” which stems from its own values and culture.

In more than one European country, people are increasingly complaining about individuals and groups who are unable to “integrate” into the European society and prefer to isolate themselves by living in the “ghetto.”

This social threat is accompanied by a security one, whether due to the rising crime rates or the increasing rates of terrorist incidents. Europe has been facing an economic challenge for a long while now, as it has been suffering from modest growth rates and high unemployment rates.

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After all, if these countries are unable to secure jobs for their own citizens, then they will definitely not be able to provide jobs to the immigrants seeking refuge there. Therefore, it will only be a matter of time before those immigrants start resorting to crime and terrorism.

The above is a European point of view that I heard from a respected European businessman, as I was trying to wrap my head around what is happening in the old continent. The reactions and positions we are witnessing in Europe today appear to be far deeper than just mere events. France may be taking over the headlines today, but it is not alone.

Dealing with the fear of the unknown, which has struck Europe, comes in many shapes and forms. Since France is currently dominating the news for reasons that have become well-known, I recall the book titled “Who is Charlie? Sociology of a Religious Crisis” by French author, historian, and prominent anthropologist Emmanuel Todd.

In the book he asks, “who are we really?” He then goes on to say, “we are the ones who showed great determination to reject blind violence and believe in the republic on January 11, 2015.” A cartography of the protests by three or four million Parisian protesters (the Yellow Vests protests), who established themselves as an object for sociological study, reveals many surprises, because, according to the book, if Charlie Hebdo was advocating for liberal and republican values, the protesting middle classes had another, no less important, message, which shows a discrepancy in freedom, selfishness and inequality.

This reality raises difficult and uncomfortable questions such as: Should France continue to mistreat its youth, force them to live on the outskirts of cities, exclude migrants, offend Islam, and nurture anti-Semitism? The boldness of these old questions, asked by the French to the French themselves, provides us with a cross-sectional view of the current French mindset and way of thinking, which could be seen as a sample representing the rest of the European societies.

France is suffering from one or several crises and what is happening is just the outer layer. After having welcomed with open arms Nina Ricci, Smalto, Berluti, and Cerrotti from Italy and Kenzo from Japan, who excelled in the fashion world, along with the Czech Kundera, the American Baldwin, the Lebanese Amin Maalouf, the Moroccan Ben Jelloun, and the Algerian Arkoun, has France suddenly run out of space to take in others?

It is important to understand what is happening in societies from the inside before judging them from a single and subjective perspective. I recall a meeting I had with an academic from Belgrade, during which he explained to me the Serbs’ point of view in regard to the Bosnian war. He gave me insight into the Serbs’ deep national perspective, as they consider Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo to be Serbian lands that must be returned after being usurped by the Ottomans, who changed the identity of these lands.

I replied by saying that the massacres committed by the Serbs against the Muslims cannot be justified as acts of nationalism as he had mentioned, although it is worth to take that perspective into account. The case is similar to how those wrapped up in political Islam spread fear and panic among Europeans, especially the Spaniards, when they say that they will take back Andalusia.

When discussing political secularism, the comparison is always between the French and the American models. The American model defines secularism as “the separation of church and state,” whereas the French model defines it as “the protection of the state from the dangers of religion.” The French definition, which sounds tough, has its historical reasons, the most important of which being the French people’s great suffering under the decades-long hegemony of the Catholic Church.

Emmanuel Todd concludes his book with the following idea: “I have long had an absolute faith in my country’s ability to assimilate immigrants of all origins – Jews, Asians, Muslims and Blacks. I have to admit that for some time I have started to have my doubts. One day, perhaps, Paris will be one of the planet’s wonders, the city where representatives of all the peoples of the world have melded together, a new Jerusalem where the phenotypes separated by the dispersion of Homo sapiens across the whole earth, for more than 100,000 years, will have been mixed, brewed and recomposed into a humankind freed of all racial feeling. But it is certain that even if France finally does manage to come back to herself, it will be a much bumpier ride than I imagined twenty years ago. And it is already clear that my generation will not see the Promised Land.”

This piece was originally published in, and translated from, Saudi Arabian news outlet Asharq Al-Awsat.

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